Jeffrey (not his name), a 37-year-old accountant in Memphis, TN, developed pain in his neck and shoulders after a football injury. He got lidocaine shots in the affected areas, along with physical therapy and chiropractic. Eventually, his health insurance stopped covering the treatments but the pain and especially sleepless nights continued. Thankfully, he’d read about a tried-and-true yet less conventional pain relief method that was completely free to help him sleep; the self-pleasuring act of masturbation.
Self-pleasuring himself right before bed got rid of the pain long enough for him to fall asleep, then it usually didn’t return until the morning. “Masturbation took the focus off those areas and put it all into one place,” he says. “After orgasm, the exhaustion is usually good enough to let me sleep.”
What Experts Say
While we may not all have been taught to think of masturbation as a wholesome activity, experts say it really can be beneficial for health, particularly when it comes to pain relief. Masturbation is unlikely to cure a chronic illness, but it can be a useful way to manage discomfort in the present moment.
George nicknamed “G”, a 34-year-old political consultant in Detroit, considered it for a similar reason. George experiences headaches and migraines from sinus congestion, which used to render him incapacitated by the time he got home from work, despite loading up on doctor-prescribed medications. As with Jeffrey, his doctor never mentioned masturbation as a treatment, but he discovered on his own that it worked and found that it relieved his anxiety around the pain. “The pleasure I’m enjoying while masturbating distracts me from the pain, and then the orgasm itself literally relieves the pain for a short period of time,” he says. “It’s almost like a release valve for my body.”
Studies on Masturbation
Perhaps the most well-known (albeit small-scale) study on the topic of the Benefits of Masturbating was by psychologist Barry R. Komisaruk and sexologist Beverly Whipple, who reported in a 1995 paper in the Annual Review of Sex Research that in two studies of 10 women each, the women were less likely to notice their fingers being squeezed by a machine while they were masturbating, especially during orgasm, due to decreased pain perception. Another study in Cephalalgia from 2013—also small—found that 60 percent of 100 migraine sufferers who had sex during migraine attacks reported relief (though 33 percent reported worsening of migraines). Among 30 people who had sex while experiencing cluster headaches, 37 reported that sex improved their symptoms, though 50 percent said it worsened them.
A number of feel-good neurotransmitters released during masturbation could be involved in pain relief, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, prolactin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, says Dan Nguyen, MD, a physician at Texas Health Action’s Kind Clinic. These chemicals affect not just the brain but also other parts of the body connected to the nervous system, like the muscles and pain receptors.
Sexual Arousal and Pain Association
Male orgasms releases opioids—these chemicals exist naturally in your brain. Opioid receptors have a number of different ‘natural’ functions, but are perhaps best known for their role in mediating pain and pleasure experiences. That’s why opioid drugs are often used in the treatment of migraine headaches, so it’s unsurprising that masturbation would help with certain pains. Orgasms usually leads to muscle relaxation, so pain from tense muscles could be alleviated.
So, for sustained relief, you’d have to do it regularly.
Pain Relief With or Without Orgasm
While some forms of pain relief may be dependent on orgasm, sexual pleasure alone can be helpful. Certain feel-good neurotransmitters, like prolactin, are orgasm-specific, but others, like dopamine, are present without orgasm.
Eddie, a 23-year-old Amazon worker in Michigan who identifies as a transmasculine nonbinary person, uses his clitoris to relieve symptoms of Ehlers-Danlos Ssyndrome (EDS), a disorder that affects connective tissue, causing sore and clenched muscles. Initially, he tried a number of pain medications, which didn’t do much for him when he has to work. But after he masturbates, his pain decreases considerable, often enough for him to continue his shift.
“Masturbation helps relax my muscles safely and privately, without straining my joints like exercising or stretching,” he explains. “The release feeling of an orgasm has no muscle tightness and soreness. It’s just a release.”
Pain relief also may be psychological rather than directly physical. “If you can stop focusing on the anxiety about the pain itself, you can better cope,” explains mental health counselor and sex therapist Michael Stokes, EdD, LMHC. “You will learn to focus your mind on the things you want to focus on.”